Sexual Harassment when Finding a Home

This is a guest post by By Rachael Deane. Rachael is a Coordinator of Systemic Investigations and Enforcement at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME). She is a lifelong Virginian.

As previous posts have mentioned, both state and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (gender), handicap (disability), and familial status.  Discrimination based on gender too often comes in the form of sexual harassment, and courts across the nation have held that sexual harassment in housing can violate fair housing laws.

Instances of sexual harassment can include inappropriate or sexual comments by a landlord to a tenant or prospective tenant, inappropriate touching, propositions of sex for rent or a security deposit, or threats of eviction if sexual contact is not provided.

Courts have generally interpreted sexual harassment claims to fall into two recognizable categories: so-called “hostile environment” or “quid pro quo” actions.

Hostile environment cases have involved plaintiffs who are subjected to severe and pervasive sexual harassment which may include sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other unwelcome and offensive solicitations. This harassment interferes with the victim’s use and enjoyment of his or her home.  Whether a hostile environment is present is determined on a case-by-case basis by the courts and includes looking at all circumstances surrounding the conduct of the defendant and the humiliation suffered by the victim.

In quid pro quo situations, housing benefits are conditioned on sexual favors.  This can take various forms, including a landlord conditioning certain required repairs or improvements on receiving sexual favors from the tenant or threatening to evict the tenant if she or he does not comply with the sexual demands.

Both forms of sexual harassment constitute housing discrimination under the fair housing laws because they interfere with the victim’s ability to enjoy his or her home.  Landlords usually have significant access to tenants and their living spaces, and the home is more personal and private than the workplace.  As the home should be a sanctuary and refuge for a person-we generally spend more time at home than at work or socializing-sexual harassment in housing is particularly degrading and harmful.  

In 2005, the Virginia Fair Housing Board brought a fair housing case based on sexual harassment against an Albemarle landlord on behalf of a victim of housing discrimination.  The case was based on both “quid pro quo” and “hostile environment” theories of sexual harassment under the Virginia Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against gender discrimination in housing.

In this case, a female tenant lost her job and was unable to pay rent.  Her landlord demanded oral sex on several occasions and threatened to evict her if she did not comply with his demands.  This went on over the period of two years.  At one point, the landlord won possession of the apartment in court, and threatened to evict the tenant if she did not give in to his demands for sexual favors.  The Fair Housing Board alleged that the harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute an abusive living environment and prevent the victim from enjoying her home.  The case went to a jury trial in 2008, which resulted in a verdict of $190,000 for the victim.  The verdict was upheld by a judge in 2009, and the defendant was also ordered to pay the Commonwealth’s attorney’s fees.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment in housing is not isolated to a single egregious case.  Some recent Craigslist advertisements in Virginia have purported to ask for quid pro quo situations.  In 2009 and 2010, HOME filed over twenty complaints with the federal and state government alleging that advertisements on Craigslist and other online housing sites discriminated on the basis of gender, race, color and national origin.  In some of these ads, housing providers advertised for females only and demanded sex from women in exchange for rent or indicated that sex for rent would be required or desired for residency.  One ad offered a room for only a dollar:

“$1 Live‐in housekeeper: Hoping to find a nice, open‐minded, willing female for a live‐in housekeeper/lover. It would be a monogamous arrangement where you would have your own room at no charge. I am nice looking, 49, white, slender and healthy.”

When sex is demanded as part of a housing transaction, it is not consensual and someone in desperate need of housing may feel they have no choice but to agree.  Sexual harassment in housing can be devastating for individuals, and many Virginians do not realize they are protected from sexual harassment in housing by the Virginia Fair Housing Act.  HOME encourages anyone who feels that they have experienced sexual harassment in housing to call at 804-354-0641 or email fairhousing [at] phonehome.org.

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